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Mental health matters, but we don't talk about it enough, especially in the workplace. World Mental Health Day is the perfect time to break the stigma around mental health discussions at work and to encourage others to open up about their struggles. And one of the best ways to start is with transparency, right from the top.
Having visible leaders in an organisation who are willing to tell their stories is vital to destigmatizing mental health. Only through this vulnerability can we erase negative associations with experiences such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.
As a senior human resources executive and leader, I know a thing or two about changing workplace culture. I have a passion for transformational change initiatives and developing HR strategies to better serve an organisation. My work in global talent management has led to direct contact with employees at all levels of an organisation. One pattern that I've found persists no matter where I go is a lack of mental health discussion in the workplace.
Through my current work as Vice President of Organisational Effectiveness at Ceridian, I've come to know many who want to see this silence about mental health change.
Here is the story of my own mental health journey. I hope it will inspire others to share their own stories, while reminding employers of the importance of putting vital measures in place to support mental health.
My story: Overcoming postpartum depression
Not feeling like myself
My mental health journey began with the birth of my daughter. It started out with feeling tired – which was easy for me to explain away because I had a newborn. My family had just relocated to another state, and I'd started a new job. It's safe to say that I was under a lot of stress amid a world of new people and new responsibilities.
Yet, this tiredness continued. Over time, feelings of exhaustion, sadness, and numbness took over. I felt “blah” all the time, and I wanted to be left alone. I avoided the people around me and pushed my loved ones away.
My need to be alone grew until, finally, it culminated in a desire to get in my car and just keep on driving. I wanted to run away from home and live at the YMCA – to leave the life I knew behind and replace it with solitude. Initially, I dismissed these feelings, but they lingered and the burden I felt only increased.
Seeking help from others
The turning point in my journey came unexpectedly. One day, I was having a conversation with a counsellor about my son, and I casually mentioned some of these feelings I was experiencing. That counsellor was the first person to call out my symptoms as depression, and more specifically, post-partum depression (PPD).
I began meeting with a psychiatrist, and it took two more years of trying different medications and techniques before finding a solution that worked and helped me feel “normal” again.
Repairing relationships and moving forward
During my depression, I withdrew from the people closest to me. When my treatment helped me regain a sense of normalcy, I saw that I needed to repair those distanced and broken relationships.
My husband and I attended marriage counselling. I had pushed him away for almost four years, and my marriage suffered because of my depression. I'm happy to say that my husband and I were able to recover, and I've been able to reconnect with others whom I'd retreated from.
I'm proud of where I am today. I'm proud of how I've continued moving forward and of the support I've received through counselling combined with medication. My treatment helped me regain my mental sharpness and re-engage people in my life.
I'm depression-free now, and I have been for close to 30 years, but it's something I must actively keep an eye on every day. It's easy to “fall” back into a depressive state. When things feel overwhelming, I am quick to turn to counselling. Though I haven't needed medication since my initial treatment, I wear my recovery from depression as a badge of honor, and I encourage anyone with feelings of depression to seek professional help.
My suggestions for anyone suffering right now
During my years living with depression, I've learned a lot about myself and about depression. I've seen firsthand how mental health impacts everything from your closest relationships to your productivity at work. If you're struggling and don't know what to do, here's some guidance that worked for me along the way.*
The first step:Opening up to someone
The first step in facing your depression is opening up to someone. It's easy to hide yourself away and bury your difficult feelings, but this only causes more pain. Having the first conversation is the most important step toward getting help. No matter who it is, just naming your feelings and allowing someone else into those feelings is critical.
Don't be afraid of talking about depression, and don't be afraid of getting treatment. Try not to be discouraged by any stigma around going to a counsellor or psychiatrist—seeking help is normal, acceptable, and vital.
When seeking counselling, it's important to articulate what your goals are and to be able to describe them to your therapist. I wanted to return to my old way of life, which included being active with my children and my husband. But everyone's “normal” is unique to them, and not all treatment regimens are the same, so don't feel like your story has to look like mine or anyone else’s.
Three things you might not know about depression
Mental health challenges are often misunderstood, and these misunderstandings can prevent people from getting help. These are a few surprising facts I found along the way that defy conventional expectations of depression.
1. Depression doesn't look the same for everyone
First things first, depression doesn't look the same for everyone. There are varying degrees, types, and ways of expressing depression. Not all depressed people are bedridden or withdrawing from all aspects of life.
You can have depression and still be a high-functioning person. You can work hard, keep pushing on, and go through the motions, all while feeling really depressed inside and pushing those feelings down.
2. Depression doesn't disappear
Clinical psychologists have identified that “depression is a highly recurrent disorder.”1 Depression doesn't always disappear and, once you've had it, you're more likely to experience it again.
If you're on the other side of depression yourself, remember the feelings you had at your lowest. That way, you know if you're veering toward those thoughts again and when you need to reach out to someone. Plan for the next time and constantly monitor depressive feelings. It's easy to experience a depression relapse, so don't dismiss the tell-tale signs.
You have to fight tooth and nail against depression. And that may include dragging yourself into doing activities you don't want to and engaging with people when you don't want to. Even if you believe you don't have the strength, you may be able to fake it until you make it.
3. You can find a “new normal”
After you experience depression, you might feel that you can't get back to how you felt before. You may want to return to how life used to be, but now you're faced with an awareness of sadness, and you need to be wary of depressive feelings when they arise.
Instead of aiming to return to life exactly as it was before, you can find a “new normal.” You can reset your baseline mental health to include regular counselling and medication, if needed. Depression doesn't have to rule your life, and you can define your own new normal.
Three things you can do to support workplace mental health
Our emotions don't stop when we walk into the office or log onto our work computer. We still have our feelings of depression, anxiety, or stress while writing memos, leading meetings, and chatting with co-workers. Since we can't outrun our feelings, we must do more to support workplace mental health.
1. Engage in storytelling
One of the best ways to create positive conversations about mental health is through sharing stories. When successful, inspirational leaders share their stories and engage others about mental health, wonderful things can happen. Storytelling can help destigmatise experiences such as depression and open the door for support.
2. Connect people
Another great way to promote workplace mental health is by connecting people with each other. In today’s hybrid workforce, many of us don't interact with colleagues as frequently or naturally as we did in person. So, find ways to bring people together to interact and talk about mental health.
Here at Ceridian, we're holding a 24-hour Mental Health Matters summit for employees to connect, interact, and learn. This day-long event will equip our in-person and remote employees across the world with information about mental health support and bring people together in creative ways, like online gaming groups.
If you're looking for ways to connect people at your organisation, consider joining the United-Nations-led events for World Mental Health Day.
3. Keep mental health benefits top of mind
Mental health support isn't just about building relationships and sharing stories – though those are essential. It's also an institutional consideration that organisations build into their benefits offerings. A great way to support the conversation is to research the mental-health-related benefits at your organisation and to raise awareness about them.
For example, many organisations have employee assistance programs (EAPs). An EAP is a “work-based intervention program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems.”2 Yet, many employees and managers often don't realise this support is available.
Maybe your organisation doesn't have an EAP, or you think more could be done about workplace mental health. Find ways to prioritise mental health benefits. If you're an HR leader, don't forget mental health support is an ongoing need, so consider increasing focus on these resources during the next enrollment period. If you're an employee, advocate for mental health benefits at your organisation and contact your HR team for additional information.
If telling my story can help just one other person, then the sharing was worth it. There's always more we can do to promote workplace mental health. It's time to destigmatise depression at work and find new ways to connect and support one another.
 Stephanie L. Burcusa & William G. Iacono, Risk for Recurrence in Depression, Clinical Psychology Review, March 2007.
 What is an employee assistance program (EAP)?, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
*Legal disclaimer: Michelle is not a mental health professional, and the advice given in this article is based solely on her experience. If you or someone you know is experiencing feelings of depression, contact a licensed mental health professional near you.